British Thornton ESF Ltd. is an amalgamation of three companies.

1. A G Thornton set up business in 1878 making and supplying quality drawing and surveying instruments and materials to engineers, architects, ship builders, surveyors, local authorities and schools. They created a large national trade and extensive export business and were appointed as a contractor to Her Majesty’s Government. During the early years of the twentieth century Thorntons excelled in the design and development of new drawing equipment with many patents and design awards. The manufacturing premises was destroyed during the Second World War and, using a copy of a British Intelligence report on the German drawing instrument industry printed in 1947, the company re-organised its production methods. Thorntons excelled in the manufacture of slide rules, each taking between 18/24 months to complete. By 1949 the company employed 220 employees. During the 1960s new materials were utilised in production methods, winning a Design Centre Award in 1965 and a Royal Society of Arts Presidential Award for design and management.

In 1967 the company changed its name to British Thornton.

The introduction of electronic calculators in the 1970s saw the demise of the slide rule and British Thornton concentrated on supplying furniture and equipment for Craft, Design and Technology courses into schools. More information on A G Thornton's products can be seen in the The Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester or by clicking here.

In 1992 the directors set up a new holdings company with a stock market listing and acquired two other companies to expand the manufacturing and company base.

2. Educational and Scientific Furniture (ESF) Ltd. was formed in January 1969 and operated out of Otley, West Yorkshire. The five original directors all left Leeds Woodworking, later known as Unitform and Morgan and Grundy, to set up a manufacturing base for school and laboratory furniture.

In 1972 the company moved to Burley in Wharfedale, expanding its manufacturing facility to meet the demands of the customer base. The company employed 25 employees in its 30,000 square foot factory. 

ESF Ltd. had little or no marketing or catalogues and a low profile in the market place preferring to manufacture to specific designs and specifications issued by Local Authorities and Central Government Agencies such as Crown Suppliers, MOD etc.

The introduction of LMS (Local Management for Schools) in the late 1980s and the demise of Crown Suppliers, left ESF with a significant manufacturing base but low market profile.

3. Armstrongs (Hull) Ltd. was part of the Hollis Industries Group bought by Robert Maxwell and following the break up and demise of the group, Armstrongs went into receivership in 1991.

Armstrongs was a leading player in the design and manufacture of science laboratories for the industrial and university sectors.

British Thornton Holdings PLC acquired all three businesses in 1992 creating a leading player in the educational and scientific furniture market place and was located in Burley in Wharfedale.

  • British Thornton - Very well known company, massive market presence, no manufacturing facilities.
  • ESF Ltd. - Significant manufacturing facilities, very high reputation for quality, very low market presence.
  • Armstrongs (Hull) Ltd.  - High profile name in the industrial laboratory market.

The appointment of a new Chief Executive in 1993 at British Thornton Holdings PLC resulted in a new strategy for the group. They decided to concentrate on the packaging and distribution industry based in the Greater London area.


All three businesses, including the name British Thornton, were acquired in a management buy-out by three of it's directors, David Jevons, Gary Wilks and Stuart Little in 1996.

British Thornton Direct Ltd. became the parent company (non-trading) with British Thornton ESF Ltd. as the trading company.

In 2005 the company moved its manufacturing and office facilities to Keighley, West Yorkshire. The move was driven by market demand for British Thornton products over several years of sustained and profitable growth.

In 2009 British Thornton Direct Ltd. acquired Educational & Municipal Equipment (EME) Ltd. in Sanquhar, Dumfriesshire.

In 2010 David Jevons retired selling his shares to the two remaining directors, Gary Wilks and Stuart Little. Gary and Stuart set up a new company called the Thornton EME Group Ltd. that is now the ultimate parent company for both British Thornton ESF Ltd. and EME Furniture Ltd. 

In September 2015, British Thornton united with fellow Yorkshire company Claughtons to become the UK's largest manufacturer of furniture for education.

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